Long term impact of Wikimedians in Residence (2018)/sustainability

Wikimedians in Residence have in many cases achieved impact within their host institutions - looking back now we can see that the changes attained by the projects as sustained changes. Both Wikimedia UK and our partner institutions want to keep those changes - this is what we mean by sustainability. We examined the views of partner institutions on whether this was achieved within their residencies, partly to understand sustainability better, and to create a better sustainability plan for future WIR partners.

In many cases, the sustainability is clearly seen in the openness of past hosts to engage with Wikimedia again, the skills that were transferred within the organisation and within the sector. An experience with Wikimedia enabled know-how for mass uploads, digitisation or data management projects that can be utilised if needed. Policies were influenced and maintained on open knowledge. Sustainability in this sense was achieved in many cases, although invariably the actual activities tended to drop off, and materials created by the resident have gotten out of date quickly. Time and skill appear to be the key barriers, and even the best sustainability plan seems to be worse than having an active resident. Active engagement is likely to decline after the residency due to costs/time burden and staff turnover.

‘Info kits’, one of the main deliverables of the project, are still available, but aren’t being actively promoted. This means that people may come across it, but only accidentally, despite our hope that the users would just pick the kit up and use it. Sustaining the outcomes has proven challenging.
-- Peter Findlay (Digital Portfolio Manager, Jisc, WIR’s line manager), impact interview May 2017

The other challenge is that the gains in openness within the host organisation come under pressure after WIR’s departure, so the changes can feel precarious:

At the SMT level, the managers are doing a lot of balancing between openness and money generation. Attitudes are subject to change depending on internal politics, funding models, different departments looking at different ways to deliver.
-- Mahendra Mahey (Head of British Library Labs, involved in the WIR project), impact interview July 2017

In this context a lot depends on whether there remains an internal champion who can continue to argue for openness, and on Wikimedia UK helping to produce impact metrics to help the case for openness. In many cases we have seen that the activity has sustained because of changes in policies, culture, as well as projects and people continuing to be active: Because the Library had hosted the WIR and it went well, they were open to working on another project – this gave rise to the Gaelic Wikipedian project which we are now collaborating on.

There is a lot being planned at the moment, especially around sharing content - plans for significantly upscaling digitisation programme on the horizon, combined with thinking about pushing it to external sites (thanks to the positive Commons/Wikipedia experience and huge reach during the residency).
-- Gill Hamilton (Digital Access Manager, National Library of Scotland, WIR’s line manager), impact interview June 2017

A key aspect of the sustained changes within MGS is the fact that all staff within the organisation were trained by the resident on Wikimedia and open knowledge. At the time, this was to ensure they are all confident to be advocates for open knowledge while talking to the sector organisations, but a somewhat unintended consequence is that the engagement with Wikimedia continued after the project ended since people had the skills and understanding to do it.
-- Kelly Forbes (Digital Manager, Museums Galleries Scotland, WIR’s line manager), impact interview June 2017

These mechanisms could be set up while the WIR is still in post. Asking residents to build in a sustainability plans into their projects is, however, rather tricky. When the preliminary results of this research were presented to a cohort of current UK WIRs, they reflected on a tension this issue brings. Many residents get extended because there is a continuous need for their services, if they build a sustainability plan effectively this can mean working themselves out of a job.

On the other hand, a sustainability plan needs to be overseen by someone, so it could be that the resident essentially upskills and looks after implementation of Wikimedia work in the form of ‘business as usual’ within the institution.

Opportunities ahead - permanent Wikimedian

Another route to sustainability would be perhaps to make the residency role permanent. This is an idea that we have been discussing with our partner institutions, however, it appears that we may need another model, another job title at the least, to make that viable:

The ‘residencies’ model might need a re-think if we are looking to encourage sustained involvement from institutions. [Melissa] is willing to consider continuing the residency but she feels constrained by the word ‘residency’ ie. that the role has only ever been couched as being for a temporary period. While this makes sense in terms of encouraging institutions to get onboard to ‘test the water’ it may be that some WIRs have already shown that sustained involvement for longer periods is no bad thing and that we may have to consider offering a different model if we want universities employing Wikimedians more generally as part of their digital skills teams.
-- Resident, Edinburgh University, April 2017

Elements of Wikimedia work could also be incorporated into existing role, and it is something we’re beginning to see - e.g. in positions such as a ‘Web Editor’ or ‘Learning Technologist’.

On the other hand, the WIR model has disruption built in and that’s partly why it can be innovative: institutions are expecting and are open to the changes it brings. As mentioned in the ‘enablers’ section, the time limit of the project brings urgency and a concrete call to action, while the view of the WIR as being somewhat external can make it easier to propose significant changes. Would defining the role as permanent take the edge off and make it less impactful? Or would it make it more accepted internally and allow greater scope for sustainability?